DEFENDING the PANAMA CANAL; Western Hemisphere's Most Important Waterway Is Protected by First Coast Military Might

Article excerpt

Byline: GREGORY PIATT

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN -- Whirling blades from helicopters coming and going on this amphibious assault ship keep the beat to the operation tempo at hand. Smaller boats emerge from the bowels of the ship, exiting through the large door at the stern of the big-deck ship.

This ship's sailors flying helicopters, piloting small boats or peering into radar screens are looking for a maritime terrorist threat, but this isn't the Persian Gulf or the Indian Ocean. It's the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Central America, and near the approaches to the Panama Canal.

"The Panama Canal is important to the hemisphere, and that's why you see so many countries participate [in this exercise]," said Rear Adm. Vinson Smith, commander of the U.S. Southern Command's naval component, which is headquartered at Mayport Naval Station. "They recognize from a security standpoint the economic value of free transit through the canal."

Keeping trade flowing is why 15 nations -- the United States, Canada and others from Central and South America -- came together this month in an exercise called Panamax 2005, to protect the Panama Canal against an attack. About 3,500 troops from the 15 nations, along with two dozen naval and coast guard vessels participated in the two-week exercise -- including 400 First Coast sailors, one ship from Jacksonville and the Navy's newest high-speed wave-piercing catamaran, HSV Swift, one of the fastest ships in any navy.

Smith called the Panama Canal the Western Hemisphere's most important waterway with several hundred million tons of cargo passing annually. Every year, 13,000 ships traverse the 50-mile canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Built by the United States and inaugurated in 1914, the U.S. government administered the canal until 1999, when it surrendered its control to Panama.

The exercise offered the participating nations' militaries a chance to operate together, build relationships, and train in tactics and procedures, Smith said. U.S. sailors, soldiers, Marines and airmen worked with other nations' forces on diving skills, bomb disposal techniques, amphibious assault attacks and boarding hostile vessels.

Despite the political differences among countries about military exercises, training to defend the Panama Canal is one exercise that brings many nations in the region together, Smith said.

Lt. Cmdr. Ernesto Suaya, a pilot of the Argentine P-3 Orion that flew in the exercise, couldn't agree more.

"We need to build partnerships," Suaya said. "In this exercise, the rivalries between countries are left behind, and now you are seeing more-mature international relationships develop."

One of Southern Command's priorities is to train with other militaries in the region to encourage a cooperative approach to regional problems, Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander of the Miami-based Southern Command, told Congress this year.

"Exercises provide unique opportunities for military-to-military interaction, enhanced inter-operability, and invaluable training for both partner nations and U.S. forces," Craddock said in a statement about the region to Congress.

Panamax is one of the most important of the 16 exercises his command conducts, Craddock told Congress.

In its third year, the exercise, which was first proposed by Chile, has grown from three nations -- the United States, Panama and Chile -- to 15.

"Chile was the first country to understand how terrorism can affect the canal, the world economy and the region," said Capt. Jesus Bejarano, a Colombian naval liaison officer based in Jacksonville. "Over the last three years, the exercise has gained importance, and more countries are participating."

On board the USS Bataan, Capt. Rick Snyder, the Bataan's executive officer, said his Norfolk, Va.-based ship was providing support and communications so Smith and his multinational staff of several hundred naval officers could oversee the exercise. …